Here We Go Loopty Loop: Learning Through Introspection

Double-loop earning

Chris Argyris says, “People consistently act inconsistently, unaware of the contradiction between… the way they think they are acting and they way the really act.” This is the basis for Minding the Gap, my blog that strives to uncover what we say we want from the way we actually behave.

Evaluation is happening all around us in the workplace. We look for feedback on programs, conduct “lessons learned” meetings at the end of a project, and complete annual performance appraisals all in an attempt to determine if we are on track and identify what we can do better next time.

But when it comes to self-evaluation, looking within to see how we may have contributed to any missed opportunities, or even a complete derailment of a project, we suddenly get defensive. Argyris says this tendency is especially prevalent amid highly successful smart people. Success leads to an inability to objectively scrutinize where we may be in error. He says,

Because many professionals are almost always successful at what they do, they rarely experience failure. And because they have rarely failed, they have never learned how to learn from failure.

Argyris identifies two types of learning:

Single-loop: One-dimensional learning that provides a response based on the undesired action. For instance, a thermostat kicks in when the temperature falls below the desired (set) temperature.

Double-loop: Reflective learning where people evaluate why something went wrong. It is a root cause analysis that includes introspection.

And others have gone on to identify a third loop, which Argyris was sceptical about:

Triple-loop: Described as “double loop learning about double loop learning,” this type of learning seeks to understand the learning process itself and about our beliefs and perceptions.

To be truly introspective, to discover why we may be contributing to a problem and admit our own mistakes, takes a huge dose of vulnerability and humility. This is why it is so difficult for successful people – they don’t want to look foolish. It’s much easier (safer) to analyze the external reasons for something going wrong than to ‘fess up to our contributions.

Argyris suggests the best place to start to develop double-loop learning is through simple case studies. Here’s what it might look like:

  1. Identify a persistent issue – a real problem that needs to be dealt with.
  2. In 1-2 paragraphs, describe the situation.
  3. Write out a script of how you might discuss the situation with other stakeholders (employees, co-workers, bosses, etc.).
  4. Write out any thoughts or feelings you will likely have about others’ responses.
  5. Now you’re ready to analyze the issue and include stakeholders in the discussion.

Some things that may be discussed are group dynamics, priorities, blind spots, roles & responsibilities, and other factors that sometimes limit our ability to objectively evaluate your own behavior and biases. Introspection is not always pleasant. We like the idea of being reflective, but only when we see our overly-optimistic view of ourselves. When our motivations, limits and contributions look ugly, we want to quickly gloss over them. Having a humble and teachable spirit, an ability to see the truth about who we are but not letting that truth overwhelm and discourage us, is the key to learning the way Argyris describes it.  

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Self-Discovery Critical to Managing Your Career

Part 2 of An Appreciative Approach to Career Management

Getting out of the default mode of career management means we have to do some soul-searching, stopping to really understand who we are and what we want out of life, specifically our work life. Some of us have a really hard time with this, especially if we feel we’ve missed opportunities, are somehow deficient in comparison to others, or believe that we have little control over our career trajectory.  Whether you feel hopeless or hopeful, you will benefit from some structured introspection. And an appreciative approach to managing your career will help you see the high points more clearly, and prepare the way for dreaming up a career path in which you will thrive.

The appreciative cycle of Discovery, Dream, Design & Destiny is easily applied to career management. Cooperrider and Whitney talk about the task of “disclosing positive capacity” through the Discovery phase. When it comes to managing and planning your career, an affirmative, appreciative method means you are looking for those things that make you feel most alive, the times when you’re at your best. There are many ways to do this exercise. You may want to spend some time in a quiet, peaceful place and think about those activities, accomplishments and successes you’ve had in school and work. Don’t allow negative filters cloud this process. This is your time to brag on yourself while also identifying what really makes you happy at work.

If you like structure, you can use instruments like Birkman On Demand (www.birkman.com) or Strong Interest Inventory (https://www.cpp.com/products/strong/index.aspx). It’s good to use a variety of assessments that help you find strengths, vocational interests, personality and other preferences. If you prefer, simply opening up a blank notebook and writing down what you think are your greatest strengths, attributes, interests, etc. Do what works for you. You might explore mind mapping, which has helped many people through career planning. A good example is at http://www.geekpreneur.com/managing-your-career-with-mind-maps.

Getting the most out of the Discovery phase requires dedication to the process. Have fun with it! To stay in an appreciative mindset, I’ve modified the Discovery phase appreciative interview process (Appreciative Inquiry Handbook, 2003) for career management:

  1. Understand the power of appreciative inquiry. Remember to ask yourself questions about when things were working best in your career. Focus on successes. Find your positive core – affirm the smallest successes and triumphs and build a positive image of yourself.
  2. Manage the negatives. Appreciative career management isn’t about burying your head in the sand, but you do want to reframe negative situations from your career history so that you can move forward positively. Use a separate piece of paper to write down things you want to think about fixing and don’t get stuck in regret. Highlight the things you’ve been able to do that you didn’t believe possible beforehand.
  3. Be specific as you write down summaries and stories. Probe deeply and intently – learn from yourself as you reflect on your past. Think about what, exactly, you were doing – what was the work environment like? What were the conditions? What was your role? Who were you working with and for? Consider both behaviors (what you did) and values (what you felt) while you were engaged in different projects and activities.
  4. Identify the “life giving forces.” How did the culture or work environment foster success for you? Think abstractly about what was present in the organization when your had your peak experiences. Then start to pinpoint themes that define the ideal conditions that put you at your best.
  5. Have fun and celebrate who you are! Remember to keep an affirmative spirit to this exercise of Discovery. This is your opportunity to get to know yourself better and you may surprise yourself with what you’ve accomplished!

Appreciative discovery should be a very positive experience as you articulate your history with a focus on your career and education. This is not the time to think of the “woulda, shoulda, coulda” times in your life. Reframe setbacks in light of what you learned and how you have changed. Consider who you really are, not what others want you to be. Bob Buford, in his book Half Time: Moving from Success to Significance, says It is discovering what’s true about yourself, rather than overlaying someone else’s truth on your or injecting someone else’s goals onto your personality. Whether your story is a drama, a comedy, a tragedy or a mystery, it’s your story and discovering who you are when you’re at your best is an indispensable exercise as you manage your career.